Hillary Clinton in Burma: Turning point in relations?

Hillary Clinton's plane landed at the airport in the remote capital Nay Pyi Taw

Hillary Clinton's US government plane touched down on the lone airstrip of Nay Pyi Taw airport late Wednesday afternoon for the start of a historic visit - making her the second US secretary of state to ever visit Burma.

Mrs Clinton said she came to "determine for myself and on behalf of our government what is the intention of the current government with respect to continuing reforms, both political and economic".

She was given a low-key welcome on the tarmac by a handful of Burmese officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Myo Myint.

She did not get a massive red banner like the one hanging on the wall of an airport building to welcome Belarusian Prime Minister Mikhail Myasnikovich, who is due to visit Burma this week.

But American officials said the Burmese authorities had worked hard to try to accommodate the American diplomat's needs and schedule - from granting visas quickly to the dozens of member of her delegation, to facilitating entry of her security guards with their weapons.

'Flickers of progress'

The visit comes amid hopes that Burma may finally be embarking on the path of reform, and could signal the beginning of a turning point for the long ostracised Asian country.

REFORM IN BURMA

  • 7 Nov 2010: First polls in 20 years
  • 13 Nov: Aung San Suu Kyi freed from house arrest
  • 30 Mar 2011: Transfer of power to new government complete
  • 14 Aug: Aung San Suu Kyi allowed to leave Rangoon on political visit
  • 19 Aug: Aung San Suu Kyi meets Burmese President Thein Sein
  • 6 Oct: Human rights commission established
  • 12 Oct: More than 200 political prisoners freed
  • 13 Oct: New labour laws allowing unions passed
  • 17 Nov: Burma granted Asean chair in 2014
  • 18 Nov: NLD says it is rejoining political process

Despite elections decried as a sham last year, the country's military-backed civilian leadership has taken unexpected steps towards reform by releasing dozens of political prisoners and relaxing some media restrictions.

They have also released leading pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and engaged in a dialogue with her.

The National League for Democracy (NLD), Ms Suu Kyi's political party, will participate in upcoming by-elections and Ms Suu Kyi herself has just announced that she intends to run for a seat in parliament.

President Barack Obama described the moves as flickers of progress when he recently announced he was sending Mrs Clinton to the country.

Past disappointments and false starts on the road to reform have caused American officials and Burmese opposition leaders to remain cautious in their optimism.

But for a country with Burma's history of repression, even Mrs Clinton's schedule seems a testament to how much has already changed - in Nay Pyi Taw she will spend almost two hours with the country's civilian President, Thein Sein, a former junta leader.

She will meet members of the lower and upper house of parliament, and hold a press conference which Burmese journalists will also be able to attend.

Aung San Suu Kyi. Photo: November 2011 Mrs Clinton will have two separate meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi
Premature reward?

The last visit by an American secretary of state dates back to 1955, when John Foster Dulles was given a ''studiously polite'' welcome, according to a New York Times article from that time.

Mrs Clinton is the most high-profile Western official to visit the country in decades and her delegation has been given rare access, including to the opposition.

In Rangoon, Mrs Clinton will tour the centuries-old Shwedagon temple on Thursday and have a private dinner with Ms Suu Kyi at the US mission. It will be the first time the two women meet in person - though they have spoken on the phone.

On Friday, Mrs Clinton and Ms Suu Kyi will meet again at her house with NLD members. She will also meet representatives of civil society and ethnic communities.

Washington wants to consult closely with Ms Suu Kyi and the opposition on the way forward.

President Obama called Ms Suu Kyi before announcing Mrs Clinton's visit.

While some observers have expressed concern that the visit is a premature reward that gives the Burmese government legitimacy, Ms Suu Kyi has welcomed it and is encouraging engagement between the two countries.

American officials said it was not entirely clear why President Sein had decided to undertake reforms.

But Mrs Clinton said she would try to gauge how serious the reforms were and how much further the leadership was willing to go.

If she likes what she hears, Mrs Clinton will announce a number of steps that the US is willing to take in return to reward Burma for good behaviour and as an incentive to undertake more reforms.

This could include upgrading the US level of diplomatic representation from charge d'affaires to ambassador.

Battle for influence

But American officials warned that this was just the beginning and there would be no major announcement, like lifting sanctions.

Mrs Clinton will also raise the issue of ethnic conflicts in Burma's border areas. Many Burmese and Burma analysts argue there can be no real progress towards democracy without addressing the ethnic conflict.

On the surface, the visit is all about encouraging democracy, but Washington is also keen to water down China's strong influence in the resource-rich country that sits at a strategic crossroads in Asia - a region where the US is increasingly building up its alliances.

While some Burmese worry about their country becoming a battleground for influence between the US and China, US-Burmese historian Thant Myint U said a healthy competition between the West, China and India for access to Burma could be good for the country if the government made sure Burma got the best deal.

"Moving away from overreliance on any one country is extremely important," he said in an interview with the Irrawady news magazine.

American officials suggest that one reason why some of Burma's leaders are pushing for engagement with the West is because of growing resentment about China's mercantile approach to its relationship with Burma.

When Mr Dulles visited Burma in 1955, the country was ambivalent about both the US and China. The then secretary of state said he was not there to woo or be wooed.

Mrs Clinton will not be wooed but it is likely she will do some wooing.

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